Ezra Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry (in the English language). How and why did that take place?


Su Dongbo, (1037-1101)

From Poetry Daily:

What did Chinese poetry sound like in 1914 to speakers of English who knew nothing about the Chinese language and had to rely exclusively on translations? It sounded like this.

O fair white silk, fresh from the weaver’s loom,
Clear as the frost, bright as the winter snow—
See! friendship fashions out of thee a fan,
Round as the round moon shines in heaven
At home, abroad, a close companion thou,
Stirring at every move the grateful gale.
And yet I fear, ah me! that autumn chills
Cooling the dying summer’s torrid rage,
Will see thee laid neglected on the shelf,
All thoughts of bygone days, like them bygone.

This translation, by Herbert Giles, sounds today like a mockery of Chinese poetry. But you must remember that when the translation was made, there was no other way for English-language poetry to sound: if the translation was going to present itself as a poem, rather than prose, then it needed to be metered. And since Giles was not a very good poet, this translation is ineptly metered.

In 1914, Ezra Pound made what seems like a translation of the same poem. In fact, it is an adaptation of Giles’s translation. Without any knowledge of Chinese, without any literal trot, with nothing but Giles’s clumsy pentameters to work from, Pound produced this poem, called “Fan-Piece, for her Imperial Lord.”

O fan of white silk,
               Clear as the frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside.

If this translation does not sound to us like a mockery of Chinese poetry, it is because Pound invented the poetic idiom with which we now associate Chinese poetry; if the poem is in any way more scrupulously attuned to the letter or spirit of the original poem, the accuracy is purely an accident. As T. S. Eliot once remarked, Pound is the inventor of Chinese poetry in the English language. How and why did that invention take place?

Recall Pound’s three famous principles for writing an Imagist poem, first published in 1913 in an essay written by Pound but signed by the poet F. S. Flint:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical
    phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

Although Pound knew that Giles’s translation was badly written, he nonetheless saw something with which he could work, and he produced his version of “Fan-Piece” as if by feeding the translation into a computer programmed with Imagist principles.